Two Husbands Begin Studying the Writings of G.K. Chesterton: A Letter to a Dear Friend

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A dear friend recently emailed me and the opening sentence read as follows:

This may seem like a trick question to you, but would you like to read Chesterton with me?

He asks in this fashion because I have a bad habit in our men’s group of rather incessantly quoting the great Gilbert. My response was, of course, quite positive and in fact I was so invigorated and inspired by his request, that my resulting letter to him ended up being a bit of a tome. Through the urging of my wife, I decided to post it, in case it inspires any other men out there to begin a similar study.
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What a delightful email to have received, for a number of reasons:

First, it is a continuing testament to the importance of Catholic men supporting each other in the faith. I appreciate so heartily that in our group we have fellowship with other guys who take the their vocations to holiness and family life so seriously.

Of course the real test of such seriousness is that when it becomes clear that some new action is needed, we respond to the call. Our men’s group has shown that seriousness by challenging each other to greater accountability and weekly resolutions. And now, this suggestion of yours I do think is yet another important step.

Second, a few years ago the thought of having a “Chesterton” group seemed a little narrowly focused to me. Though even then I had read some of Gilbert’s writings and knew generally of their importance, he as yet seemed to be simply an important figure to be read and learned from among others.

But in the last few years I have steeped myself in his writings, particularly those that pertain to the vocation of the family, and have only just finished reading the long and definitive biography by Maisie Ward. I have lived and breathed Chesterton.

I can truly say now that I understand why there is a push to open a cause for his canonization.

Like one of the great saints or doctors of the Church, he really is one that you could steep yourself in, learn from and imitate. In fact I have taken to asking for He and his wife’s intercession, for in them I find a wonderful model of marital fidelity and love, and in his writings one of the most compelling visions of the full richness and glory prepared for us, even this side of Heaven, in the family.

It is hard to put fully into words, but though I hitherto identified Chesterton more with philosophy and politics, his writings more important “out there” on the level of the culture wars, I have discovered more and more that his greatest triumph, the most distinct and transcendent threads of thought that run through his writings, all lead back to the family – the wonder of the basic human experience of this gifted universe, the glorious call to holiness of every man and woman, and the pre-eminence of the family as both the pillar and peak of human society and the primary place – there in the domestic Church – that God comes to meet man.
 
Thirdly, to reiterate the first point and your own sentiment: a test of seriousness is whether we take action. However, in the spirit of Chesterton here, in a time of history in which everyone is perpetually tempted to the futility of focusing on that which is beyond their sphere of influence and should be beyond their sphere of the better part of their concern – national politics, the culture wars, the economy, etc – how glorious, how radical, how chivalrous is it for a few, or even two, good men to reject this siren call and to rise to the far greater and ultimately more efficacious challenge of simply sanctifying themselves and their own families? What our world needs is, simply, saints, and saints come properly and primarily from Holy Families, and those striving for Holy Families, methinks, will find no better patron than G.K. (and Frances!) Chesterton.

So, thanks again for this email, and a hearty “yes!” is my answer. Early morning would be best, I’d be happy to host and provide fine and fresh (local!) coffee for discussion. The three books I’d recommend we begin our study with would be “Orthodoxy”, “Heretics”, and “ What is Wrong with the World”, the last of which, as you’ll see, is Chesterton’s great guidebook for the modern family (and upon which I am writing a book about). There are also a couple short fictional works we might read too, particularly “Manalive”.

And lest ye think I have, in my Chestertonian revelry, lost sight of the point and purpose of this study: It is to seek out and carry back to our homes (and to the other men in our group!) whatever will sanctify and enliven our families, for the Glory of God. In a sense one can rarely if ever discover anything new in this regard, and yet in an important way Catholic families must break new ground, for we have few models for how to fully live the Gospel in the family in this overwhelming and distressing age. Like Innocent Smith, the protagonist in Chesterton’s  “Manalive”, we set out as husbands on pilgrimage around the world, in our case into Chesterton’s writings, our only purpose being to end up back where we started and there to see our wives, children, and homes anew, in all their glory and wonder.

God be with you brother!

JonMarc Grodi

“Read C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy”

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Our custom CS Lewis bumper sticker, urging all motorists to read his Space Trilogy.

Our custom CS Lewis bumper sticker, urging all motorists to read his Space Trilogy.

We actually had a custom bumper sticker made displaying the above exhortation and the names of the three books: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.

My wife and I love the Space Trilogy — and Archbishop Chaput does, too! It makes the list in his article, “Ten ways to deepen our relationship with God.”

The archbishop says, “By the way, if you do nothing else in 2014, read Tolkien’s wonderful short story, Leaf by Niggle. It will take you less than an hour, but it will stay with you for a lifetime. And then read C.S. Lewis’ great religious science-fiction trilogy — Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. You’ll never look at our world in quite the same way again.” — ARCHBISHOP CHARLES J. CHAPUT, O.F.M. CAP. http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/Interiorlife/il0142.htm

You Have Nothing Better To Do

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In my recent post “Discernment and the Hard, Long, Right Road Beneath Your Feet” I pointed out that as we discern what to do with our lives, since God never intends us to reach some good end via evil means, we can rule out options, however attractive, which seem to necessitate blameworthy shortcuts. Either we have been deceived (from within or without) about the actual goodness of the good we have in mind, or it is indeed a good, but not one we are being called to do, or perhaps we are and we just have to be patient. With this in mind, I concluded by talking a bit about this very challenging notion that, thus, in some sense, the road we are on is the road we are meant to be on. It doesn’t mean God doesn’t have something better in mind for us and it doesn’t mean that if we are in dire straits we are meant to stay there, but it does mean that the next step is most likely somewhere within 2-3 feet from where we are standing (give or take a bit, depending on the length of your legs).

With this in mind, here is an interesting question: Is the familiar colloquialism “I have better things to do” ever really true? When we say, merely mutter, or mentally muse “I have better things to do,” we assert that the present frustration or inanity is keeping us from something more important – something “better”. But is this really the case? What does “better” mean here?

Sure, in the general, abstract, objective sense there may be higher goods than are attainable in the long line at the grocery store, or when faced with the third poopy diaper in the span of 10 minutes, or when having to go help with breakfast whilst one’s magnum opus lies unfinished on the computer screen (alas!). However, the good/best (or evil/worst) actions are also contextual:

…the morality of every human act is determined by the object, the circumstances and the intention. If any one of the three is evil, then the human act in question is evil and should be avoided.  – What Makes Human Acts Good or Bad? by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.

As we can only ascertain the “better” in light of the “best,” and since the “best” actions (in a moral sense) must not only be good objectively but also good in relation to our circumstances and the state of our heart, I find the conclusion rather inescapable: There is never a moment in which I really have “better things to do” than those right in front of me, as frustrating, humbling, or inane as they may be.

Whatever situation I am currently in is the one which I am (now) called to embrace with heroic virtue. No matter where we are going, to whatever more exciting or glamorous goods we are impatient to get started on, our next step is right in front of us and it is that step, first (temporally) and foremost (eternally) that we must seek to live out as perfectly as we can.

So, wait patiently in that grocery store line and be sure to give the cashier a smile. Change that poopy diaper whilst singing “Bingo,” and be prepared for a fourth barrage. And go ahead and hit save on that magnum opus because…

*yells* “I’m coming down, sweetheart!”

… you really have nothing better to do.

(Click here to read more of my musings on holiness in the now: One Day Holy)

One Day Holy

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“In the end, life offers only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.” – Leon Bloy

I have long been fascinated by the thought of the importance of the “here and now,” and our being more engaged in it. The present moment, since it is the only moment within which we can act (as opposed to a moment in the past or future), is thus the only moment we are really responsible for. Additionally, as my good friend Brother Rex commented:

it is also the only moment in which we can actually experience God’s Presence. The name He revealed to Moses was I AM, present tense. We can reflect upon His Presence in the past; with blessed assurance we can hope for His Presence in the future. But we can only encounter His Presence in this present moment.

If, by God’s grace, I wake up tomorrow morning to another day, I will be grateful for it and live it as best I can, but until then today is the only day I have been entrusted with for sure — the only day during which I can encounter the Presence of God.

This is encouraging as it breaks this giant project of living a good, holy life into bite sized pieces that we needn’t (and in fact can’t) eat more than one at a time. But it is also very challenging and humbling when we consider how many precious moments/days we take for granted.

Think about this: If I, by God’s grace, were to give 100% of today — my time, my talents, my best effort, my most heroic attempts at virtue, and my sincerest repentance whenever I fail — I will have given Him everything, for today was all I had.

But what If I fail to give today to God? What If I hold today back for myself? What If I continue to say “Tomorrow! Tomorrow I’ll begin praying! Tomorrow I’ll break my bad habit!”

If I don’t give God today, I will have given Him….nothing.

It’s true. I haven’t squandered one day of many; I have squandered the only day I actually had to give in the first place.

Thus, the transcendent purpose and goal of our lives that we look towards with hope — being one day holy — is accessible to us only in the most immanent here and now: doing our best to be just one day holy.

We tend to overwhelm and discourage ourselves thinking about the daunting task of living a (whole) holy life, but we are overestimating what has actually been asked of us. What about living just one day holy, specifically the one and only day that has yet been given to usCould we be faithful and obedient to Christ for just one day? 

Well, ready or not, this is the day (“… the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” – Psalm 118:24).

We have one day to walk with Christ — a very finite number of hours between now and whenever it is that we go to bed tonight. Let us seize this moment of grace. Let us, you and I, focus on the task at hand. For today, just today, let us love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.

One day holy.

The clock is ticking.

Discernment and the Hard, Long, Right Road Beneath Your Feet

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IMG_3470Christian discernment takes patience and prayer and is not something easily reducible to a few simple axioms or methods. However, through the use of our reason, we can at least approach discernment having ruled out certain impossibilities. One thing that we can be sure of, for example, is that God will never intend for us to sin as a means of accomplishing or reaching a good. The question of “ends and means” may be a familiar one in regards to imagining more extreme circumstances, but consider a more ordinary example:

I am a young husband, father, and professional. These vocations are my primary responsibilities and necessarily must take some degree of precedent over other things in my life. If one day I become excited by the idea of writing a book or doing foreign missionary work and think that God is calling me to do so, while continual prayer and discernment are in order, there are a couple of things I can immediately rule out: God is NOT calling me to leave my wife, abandon my children, or stop fulfilling my role in providing for them. Even with the accomplishment of some possible good in mind — even a very good “good” — I can be sure that God is not calling me to act wrongly as a means of attaining that good.

This is, again, simple but perhaps useful to consider from time to time regarding discernment. It allows us to immediately rule out some of the possible courses of action which, in our zeal, might seem very attractive in the moment. God’s ways are not our ways and our subjective feelings are not always the best standard by which to evaluate the next most right step we are to take. The good we want to do — that which seems most immediately gratifying, glamorous, worthy of praise, and likely to make us feel good — may not be the good that we ought to do (at least right now).

To use my domestic analogy again, in a moment of zeal, the good I want to do may involve locking myself in my room to write a book about important things. While writing a book may certainly be a “good” and may even be a good that God is indeed calling me to do, it may not be the good that God is calling me to right now. If locking myself in my room and writing a book involves neglect of my more fundamental (and in the moment perhaps less glamorous) responsibilities — care for my family and performance of my day job — then I can rather safely conclude that the timing is not quite right.

Does this mean I must abandon whatever noble calling I feel? Certainly not. If it truly is God’s will for me to be a writer, not only will he give me the grace to fill that role, but he will open the doors in his own timing, so that I need make no rash or hasty decisions to get there. Perhaps I will be able to incorporate writing into my professional life or perhaps for now I will simply need to plan my time well, confining my writing to some planned times throughout the week. Whatever the solution, again, we can be sure it will not conflict with, but rather complement the other duties and responsibilities God has placed upon me.

Now with all of that in mind, consider something further. If I think that God is calling me toward some good and yet I have concluded that the timing is not quite right, there is another rather confident conclusion I can make: God is calling me to be precisely where I am. Again, it is easy for me to relish a sense of noble calling in regards to becoming a writer. It is quite often less easy to recognize the noble calling of dirty diapers. But if this is where God has called me right now, then He intends for me not just to be here but to really be here.

A common temptation is to see a present difficulty as merely an annoying obstacle between myself and whatever I really should (or think I should) be doing or worrying about. As C.S. Lewis’ senior demon, Screwtape notes in chapter 6 of The Screwtape Letters:

“Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him — the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say “Thy will be done”, and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of.”

This particular passage is dealing with the management of fear, but it is broadly applicable. It is the present difficulty or task which we are being called to bear with heroic virtue. However frustrating or boring or ignoble the circumstances at hand, they are what God is calling us to right now.

To summarize, God may have noble ends in mind for us, but He never intends evil means. Thus, if pursuing some true good seems to involve rash or hasty or irresponsible courses of action in the present, either God isn’t calling us in that direction (perhaps it is someone else’s job) or the timing is just not right. We need to look for the hard, long, right road and ignore the easy, but wrong shortcut. Furthermore, let us embrace the hardness and length of the road onto which God has led us, for walking this road and walking it well is the task to which we are called right now.